Tucumán is to Argentina as Philadelphia is to the United States. Tourists visit Tucumán to touch history and to explore nationhood for the same reason people visit Philadelphia: The Declaration of Independence was signed here.
But there is a lot more to Tucumán than the paperwork of history. My first day in the city, my husband's uncle asked me what I thought. I hadn't had a chance to explore much, but of course I told him that I liked it. He said something along the lines of, "See, we don't wear feathers on our heads here." I can only assume that he thought I would think that this close to the Andes I would imagine that Tucumán would be an uncivilized place. He seemed to think I would have prejudices before arrival. However, I knew so little that my prejudices were few, and mostly based on what little I had read, movies, and what my husband had told me. Here is what I believed I knew before visiting Argentina:
1) Argentine food is mostly meat based, with a lot of beef.
3) The country has rich deposits of silver from which its name derives.
4) There are plains called the pampas where cows live.
5) Patagonia is a wild place.
Clearly, my understanding of the country was very limited. And after only three weeks of cultural immersion, it still is. Here are my revised beliefs of the five statements above:
1) Argentine food is very meat based, but the sausages in particular are mind-blowing. In the not meat category, there is the bread, the pastries, the cheese, the wine, but I've already written about a lot of that.
2) Evita is everywhere, but that does not mean that everyone loves her.
3) The silver for which Argentina is named did not come from Argentina, but from Bolivia. The silver floated down the rivers through Argentina on its way out of South America to Europe.
4) Cows do live in the pampas. They also live in the mountains. They're all over the place. So are horses and dogs. Everywhere.
5) I can't say anything about Patagonia, as I still haven't been there.
A lot of what I did learn about Argentina, I learned in Tucumán. A small city at the eastern edge of the Andes, it lies at the southern edge of an almost frost-free zone and sits in a flat expanse of sugar cane. Sugar funds Tucumán, sugar and lemons, but mostly sugar.
Many cane farmers break the law and burn their fields before harvest. Eating up the useless leaves, the fire spares the water-rich canes and makes them easier to harvest. The fire also sends up huge plumes of smoke littered with cane-leaf charcoal that lands in people's eyes, causing eye ulcers. Argentina, everywhere, smells like smoke to me.
In Tucumán, I was able to meet one side of my husband's family. As a group, these people were funny, industrious, raucous, intelligent. One weekend night, we had a huge family barbecue. Milling in and out of the house, from the kitchen to the parilla, we nibbled on charcoal-heated empanadas while we waited for the various cuts of beef and sausages to cook on the parilla. An uncle worked as asador, and we clustered around him, hoping for just-off-the-grill tastings. When dinner time came around, the older generation sat at a long table inside, and we sat at the equally long table on the patio for the kids, ranging from ten to forty. Around and around the table, we passed plates of kibbeh, salty bitter greens, tomatoes, ribs, steaks, morcilla, bread, chorizo, potato salad. Inside, bottles of blackred wine piled up as the adults finished eating and started singing. Las guitarras y la bomba (drum) appeared, and the men sang folk songs at the top of their lungs. A few mens' cheeks fattened with coca leaf while the air inside darkened with Cuban cigar smoke. A snake of cigar smoke slipped out the door, circling over our table. The windows rattled. Women fussed and kissed and sliced pasta frola and flan. They arranged facturas on platters.
The kids' table escaped the cigar smoke by moving towards the parilla, where we could warm ourselves, butts to the coals and faces to winter. We talked with Spanish and English and hands until four in the morning, and when we left, there was much kissing. Saying goodbye here takes forever, even if you're going to see each other the next day.
Around the edges of Tucumán, bedraggled horses pull carts full of trash. There are intersections in which we shouldn't and wouldn't stop, even if the light was red. Often people don't stop, even in the good neighborhoods. Two of my husband's cousins, a brother and a sister, have each lost close friends in recent, early-morning-after-a-night-of-partying car accidents. When talking about these accidents, people mention grief and waste and anger, but no one mentions alcohol. Why?
We spent the good part of an afternoon and evening hanging out with a cousin in the bike shop he owns. It is a bright white stuccoed place, a modern take on the classic architecture of the area, and in it, wheels and handlebars lean in straight columns. My husband's cousin loves bicycles, and though he works as an engineer, he and two friends purchased this shop, the shop where he spent all of his free time, after the previous owner died in a mountain biking accident. He comes to the shop most days after leaving his office. On Saturdays, he heads out of town and to the mountains. He bikes up and up the edges of the Andes, then comes down so fast his heart beats in his eyes. He told me that all week he thinks about the coming weekend.
One cousin showed us around the historic center of town during the day. Another, the bike-shop owner, showed us around at night. Argentina just celebrated its bicentennial, and in honor of the two hundred years of independence from Spain, put a lot of effort into cleaning up and lighting historic buildings.
At night in Tucumán, history glows in caramel light.